Born in 1701 Mary Toft, an illiterate peasant, in the presence of a doctor gave birth to several parts of small animals including rabbits, cats and the spine of an eel. As this bizarre news spread, a personal physician to George the 1st was sent to investigate and in his presence Mary gave birth to several rabbits which did not live.
The newspapers of the day made the case a national sensation. There was at the time a theory called "maternal impression", which held that a woman might become fixated on a pet or animal and it might influence the appearance of her offspring. Moved to Guilford by her doctors, Mary was again able to bear several more rabbits. A number of prominent physicians weighed in as convinced by what they had witnessed and stated that Mary was indeed giving birth to rabbits, cats feet and the occasional hogs bladder.
Above is an engraving by the great William Hogarth showing various parties who were associated with the controversy and Mary herself producing a seemingly endless stream of rabbits. All of England was fascinated by the story.
It was soon discovered that Mary had been surreptitiously purchasing rabbits and, well, hiding them internally, in order to produce them for the waiting physicians. Toft confessed, claiming that she had been taught by a "traveling" woman to effect this illusion and hoped for notoriety and financial gain. She was charged as a vile cheat and impostor. She and a male midwife, a possible co-conspirator, were tried and fined 800 pounds.
Any number of ribald poems and satirical writings appeared at the time and a number of the doctors who had been fooled by the production of the unnatural offspring had their careers deservedly ruined. Alexander Pope and Voltaire, among others wrote about the affair. Voltaire drew from it the conclusion that the English were ignorant and still under the influence of medieval superstition. Pope wrote famously;
Most true it is, I dare to say,
E'er since the Days of Eve,
The weakest Woman sometimes may
The wisest Man deceive.